From Vietnam to Kobe Bryant—the long history of flying helicopters in fog

Preliminary findings in Kobe Bryant’s helicopter crash tell me things haven’t changed much in over a half century. Today, as back then, instrument rated pilots flying IFR capable helicopters continue to tempt fate by pressing ahead at low altitude in low visibility. And mostly they make it to their destination! But it’s an insidious gamble, particularly in hilly areas.

The last seconds before impact are as you might imagine: one moment the ground is visible, suddenly it isn’t and just before impact, sometimes it is. It nearly happened to me in the late 1980s but it wasn’t the ground that disappeared, but a formation of Army UH-1H medevac helicopters returning from two weeks of reserve duty. What we did to survive is as valid today as it was in the past.

The four ship Huey flight took off in a loose trail formation, headed north toward Richmond International Airport in low VFR weather. Normally we flew with two pilots but a shortage of crews required that some Hueys, including mine, had only one pilot with a crew chief in the copilot’s seat.

UH-1H
Hueys are typically flown VFR, even when the weather isn’t great.

My Huey was the last in the formation. As clouds lowered and visibility decreased, the formation drew closer together. The leader pressed ahead and descended to about 200 feet above a forested countryside. As the mist grew thicker it momentarily obscured the helicopter about 75 feet ahead, then the helicopter completely disappeared.

Army Huey manuals had no standardized procedures for how pilots in formation should react in such situations and there was no preflight briefing for that possibility. But as a former naval aviator, a page in the emergency section of a Marine CH-46 flight manual flashed in front of me. Turn away from the formation and climb!

According to the manual, the amount of heading and altitude change depended on one’s position in the formation. Altitude changes were in 200 foot ascending increments so in a flight of four, the trailing three aircraft would end up 200, 400, and 600 feet above the leader. But this was the Army, not the Marines, and we were in a trail formation, not a tactical left-right echelon formation, which was more common in Marine flights. It was time to instantly ad lib!

I turned thirty degrees right and pulled in maximum collective torque, climbing steeply while transmitting my heading on the flight’s common FM frequency. The number three helicopter replied that he (a helicopter instrument-rated commercial pilot) was also climbing and gave me his heading. I instructed my crew chief to dial in 7700 (the universal emergency code) on the transponder to alert air traffic controllers that we were bursting into their controlled airspace and, pointing to the VHF radio, I told the crew chief to dial in 121.5 (the emergency VHF frequency).

An air traffic controller replied immediately and asked me to squawk ident. After we were identified, he gave me a transponder code and VHF frequency and cleared me to an altitude and heading for vectors to Richmond. I transmitted the new frequency on FM to the number three helicopter and he switched over to contact ATC.

Now level at the assigned altitude and on vectors for an ILS approach to Richmond’s runway 2 (if I recall correctly), the next step was digging out the approach chart from my helmet bag. That was another job for the crew chief because with no copilot, I had to do the flying. The Huey has no stability system and if left unattended for even a short time, it will diverge from stable flight unpredictably. The sergeant eventually found the FLIP approach chart booklet and paged through it to locate Richmond’s ILS 2 approach procedure.

Most Army UH-1H helicopters had only a single LF/ADF and VOR receiver and none had autopilots or flight directors. But the Army made an exception for medevac helicopters and added an ILS receiver. With no flight director, the approach would be “raw data” or “barefoot” as we called it in the airlines. I had the crew chief dial in the ILS frequency and read me the missed approach procedure and I set the CDI to the inbound course.

Scud left
This is considered “good VFR” by some helicopter pilots.

In the Boeings and Airbuses I flew in my civilian job, final approach speed was generally in the 125 to 145 knot range, depending on gross weight and weather conditions. The localizer and glideslope had to be tracked very closely in order to land safely in the touchdown zone. In low visibility, company policy dictated a coupled approach, letting the autopilot do all the work down to the threshold.

For those planes with auto-land, auto throttles, auto-spoilers and auto brakes, automation did everything. Usually we disconnect the automation rolling out below 60 knots but the autopilot could be left engaged while auto brakes brought the plane to a full stop on the runway.

In Hueys, things happened more slowly and with a lot less complexity. Generally, we ambled down the glideslope around 80 knots. Being slightly high, low or a bit offset left or right was easily corrected at minimums. Then it was simply a matter of air taxiing up the runway to a convenient turn off to the ramp. That day, tracking the localizer and glideslope in light winds presented no challenges and we broke out at about 300 to 400 feet with the runway straight ahead. A few minutes later, helicopter number three, following behind me on the ILS, emerged from the overcast and landed.

To my surprise, helicopters one and two somehow stayed together in the fog, making their way just above the trees to Richmond Airport and they were waiting for us when we landed. Fortunately for them, the countryside was relatively flat and there were no tall power lines stretching across their path to snatch them out of the sky. As I mentioned in the beginning, helicopter pilots are mostly successful picking their way along in low visibility and nothing much has changed in over 50 years.

Here’s what I recall of two controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) accidents from that time long ago.

On October 6, 1966 our Marine CH-46 helicopter squadron and sister squadron based at Marble Mountain Air Facility, adjacent to Da Nang, fruitlessly searched for a CH-46 that went missing the night before. The helicopter departed Phu Bai airfield about 40 miles north of Da Nang, flying beneath a low cloud deck. The aircraft commander could have gotten an instrument clearance and radar following with vectors for a TACAN approach to Marble Mountain but chose instead to fly low, following the mountainous coastline south to the base.

The wreckage and bodies were discovered in January 1969, according to official Marine Corps records, at a rumored location (because wreckage coordinates didn’t match wartime charts) near the Hai Van Mountain Pass a few miles north of Da Nang. Because of the ongoing war, there was no formal accident investigation following the discovery but there were no reports of any obvious mechanical failure. The only known facts: it was night, there were low ceilings, and there was no received distress transmission.

CH-46 on mountain top
The terrain in Vietnam was terribly unforgiving.

On February 2, 1967, in the highlands about 10 miles northwest of Phu Bai, I landed in a mountain clearing adjacent to the wreckage of a Marine CH-34 that crashed and burned on a hillside. The pilots were making their way through the misty hills and rather than climbing and aborting the mission, they decided to press on. My mission on that clear morning a day after the accident was to remove a Marine on the recovery team who had been killed in the zone by enemy fire.

Both crews were flying fairly advanced helicopters for their day and the pilots were instrument rated. The CH-46 and CH-34 had TACAN and ADF navigation receivers and what fixed wing pilots would describe as a basic autopilot capable of holding heading and altitude. In theory, both crews could have climbed and gotten vectors for an approach back to base. But in practice, the CH-34 pilots on a tactical mission, navigating through the mist with 1:50,000 terrain charts at low altitude, the idea of climbing steeply likely never crossed their minds. On the other hand, the CH-46 pilots repositioning non-tactically from Phu Bai airport to Marble Mountain could have just as easily made the trip under IFR.

Underlying those long ago accidents and the Kobe Bryant crash is the fact that helicopter pilots are comfortable flying at low altitude in low visibility. And as long as pilots fly in marginal VFR conditions, there will continue to be CFIT helicopter accidents. Those operators with well equipped IFR capable helicopters flown by instrument rated pilots with SOPs requiring IFR in marginal weather will fare much better.

32 Comments

  • Thanks to you and everyone who put (and still puts) it on the line to support or pick up those under fire.

    A way for a non-combat PIC to be a hero is to tell their pax or boss “no” when necessary…no one may appreciate it, and you may lose a job, but the person in the mirror will know.

  • Thanks for sharing this. I was in Vietnam from Nov. 67 to Nov. 68 based in Dongtam. Assigned to the Mobile Riverine 3rd/34th Artillery. Part of my job with Battalion Fire Direction was giving the helicopters pilots warning of artillery fire coordinates.

    I enjoyed reading this article. It brought back memories.

    Just recently got approved for the Wright Brothers award of 50 years of flying.

    Flying has been something that I still love.
    John Butler

  • This is the first time I have read where the pilot did what I tell everyone to do. ‘Climb and squawk 7700 and announce your actions to everyone on the proper ATC frequency or 121.50’
    Do not do a 180. You were likely scud running and a 180 will only help bring on vertigo.

  • Since a helicopter can fly at 30 mph the FAA has liberal VFR minimums for helicopters.
    The old rule allowed VFR if the helicopter pilot could see and stop before hitting an obstacle. So under the old rule a pilot could legally fly VFR below 1200 feet, keeping ground contact.
    Now 91.155 requires a minimum flight visibility.
    But VFR at 120 knots or greater requires increased visibility since a half mile has less than 30 seconds of time allowed to see and avoid.

    • At 120, that’s 15 seconds to see, comprehend, decide, act and for your inputs to change the flight path…without making it worse.

      There’s also a world of difference between uniform cloud base, good viz, no fuzz balls below over flat terrain with no obstacles vs picking through terrain, undefined cloud bottoms with scuz, precip below to avoid as well…then add in all the infrastructure that is usually located on top of or strung through your evasion path…

    • I was an Army Cobra crewchief in RVN, 69-70, Thua Thien and Quang Tri provinces(from the DMZ south). Except for the first few miles of coastal plain, you were in mountainous terrain. Treacherous conditions that at times were simply unflyable; Clouds down to your knees and pouring rain below that. Army pilots of the day received what was called a Tactical Instrument Ticket. There were very few aids to navigation. Stateside, VOR was coming into it’s own. But my base, which could handle C-130s, had an ADF.
      The statistics were grim. I remember my outfit losing 15 pilots during my one year tour. Of those 2 were actual KIA. The rest were CFIT, lost ran out of fuel and crashed in the triple canopy, and accidents(intentionally doing a roll).
      My first day, as I was reporting for duty, there was a mad scramble going on in ops. A few pilots were organizing a search to find one my outfit’s missing Cobras. The terrain was such that in the ensuing days they found two or three 1st Air Cav birds that were lost years ago, before the 101st took over the AO. As fate would have it, almost a year later, days from my DEROS, when some grunts on patrol stumbled upon it.

  • When, in Germany in 1968, I had my close encounter with fog and rising terrain I reverted to the original IFR. I followed a railroad. At 20 knots and 20 feet above the electrical transmission line for the trains. A classic case of get-home-itis and poor aeronautical decision making. One wire above and perpendicular to the lines I was following and you would not be reading this short story.

  • Great story, thanks. I was a med evac pilot in Danang 1971-72 so the locations you mention brought back memories. Working on the Kahoolawe Island cleanup project here in Maui many times I dropped off my pax at Puunene in marginal weather, then obtained a “special VFR clearance” from Kahului tower. “At or below 1,500′ & maintain VFR,” from Puunene to Kahului, about 8 miles. Always keeping the highway in sight, never had a problem, but fog, low ceiling is always something helicopter pilots deal with. Terrible crash of tour helo killed 6 on the North Shore of Kauai just a short time before Kobe’s disaster with bad WX again the villain.

  • Great article. As a fixed wing guy I’ve always thought flying a helicopter must be a blast. But as the KB crash shows it’s a type of flying where pilots get little instrument time and may be rusty at it when the need arises.

  • Thanks for this. I owe my life to a helicopter crew. I was a Marine grunt in Vietnam, medevaced in a 34 after being pretty seriously wounded at the beginning of Tet in ’68. s/f

  • I was fortunate enough to manage a public safety helicopter operation from 2014 through 2016. IIMC is THE killer in public sector aviation and we spent a lot of time talking about it. Most of our helicopter pilots were not instrument rated, and the ships were VFR only, although they did have Garmin GPS units in addition to basic nav instruments.

    Until you’ve tried it, you can’t really appreciate how fast the wheels can come off the cart trying to transition to instruments in an IMC environment.

  • On June 2, 1994, a Royal Air Force (RAF) Chinook crashed on the Mull of Kintyre (Scotland) in foggy conditions. 25 Passengers plus 4 crew killed flying too fast in thick fog. This accident is one of the the RAF’s worst peacetime disasters.

  • Arnie, great article. Thank you for your service, and a reminder to remember all of our men and women who have secured our freedoms though our country’s great history.

  • I was a cobra pilot in Vietnam in 68-69 in the “Bluemax” ARA Battery. We still had a couple Hueys. My Lt Section leader and his copilot W1 were returning from Camp Evans from refueling. We were at a fire base LZ Nancy. The weather was terrible fog and rain. The aircraft never returned. Later there next day the the A/C wreckage was found the next day upside down in a brook. They hit a hill and rolled down in to the brook. The CE in a monkey harness survived with broken wrists and ankles from the whiplash. The pilots were submerged. They were all recovered. I had to inventory the Pilots belongings. The pilots 38 pistol that was on his hip holster and under the seatbelt was bent from the impact. They must have hit going pretty fast. Their names are on the walk in Washington.

  • Loved that article!! I flew with HMM-364 in 34’s and also with 164 & 165 in 46’s during that era. Fog was an eternal battle! Often more dangerous than enemy fire.

    Our solution was often to get even closer to the treetops and hope the fog would allow us to not be shot at as accurately while flying at much lower speeds. Sometimes it worked.

    We flew med evaucs etc, in bad weather to save lives!!! I can’t help but wonder What The Hell Was So Important that Kobe and his daughter’s plane didn’t turn back???

    • Hi Hiram:
      The flight started out in very marginal VFR and conditions deteriorated. The flight leader should have aborted the formation flight but he pressed on.

      Arnie

  • As a physician practicing in a rural Rocky Mountain town, I think we sometimes called the LifeFlight helicopter out of Denver or Grand Junction too often when the weather was bad. When assessing the risk of not transporting the patient, we also should calculate in the risk to a flight crew traveling IFR in the mountains. I know of one fatal crash when the patient probably would have done fine waiting for better weather.

    • I fly an air medical helicopter in what the Rocky Mountain guys would call “ foothills”, in the North Georgia mountains. We transitioned a year ago to an IFR program. We quickly discovered that we had impressed (during our VFR reign) upon the EMS crews the hazards of poor weather flying to the point where they were making the flying decisions for us, with no practical experience in aeronautical weather decision making. We often have to ask ER staff to do the same thing. In the small hospitals up in the mountains, they will see a small slice of the sky and often make their decision to fly or ground transport the patient based upon a glance outside, with no real study of the weather.
      Air Medical has a multi-tiered system of go-no go decision making. The pilots spend their entire shift (unless it is obviously CAVU) studying and evaluating the weather and their options, and matching what they see to their and the aircraft’s capabilities. It’s best left to them.

  • The U.S. Army has had what they call “Vertical Helicopter Instrument Recover Procedures” as a required section of aviation unit SOPs for as long as I can remember. A VHIRP is a procedure for recovery of aircraft that encounter inadvertent IMC, normally agreed upon by the unit and the controlling ATC facility in that units normal area of operations. VHIRPs were definitely required in the late 80’s. Having been an Army Aviator, Instructor Pilot and Aviation Brigade Safety Officer I can assure you that a procedure was or should have been in effect in the author’s unit at the time of the event. Either the unit Safety Officer was negligent, the author’s memory has faded or the author never took the time to read the unit SOP. An Army aircraft flight manual Is the wrong place to look for an VHIRP, that’s why the author didn’t find one there. They’re found ,as I said , in the unit SOP.
    Aside from the apparent inaccuracy of the statement Army Aviation units had no VHIRPs it was an interesting article, one that I’m sure many military pilots can relate to.

  • GREAT article Arnold. However, as I mentioned under the 2nd photo, “As a pilot that flew B-47 aircraft in US Air Force & F-86H aircraft in the Mass. ANG, this is, good VFR.” While in the US Air Force we practiced flying a B-47 low level (100 to 150 feet AGL at 370 – 400 kts) over routes in excess of 800 nm to deliver an ‘Atom Bomb’. There were times we had to ‘roll-over’ on our back to stay that low over the terrain we were flying over… (to avoid being picked up on enemy radar) Also, when I was in the Mass. Air National Guard flying F86H aircraft we also practiced this low level flying… some exciting flying to be sure!

    • It wasn’t in any SOP. Also, most Army helicopter pilots (aside from instrument rated commercial pilots) were fairly shaky instrument pilots and wouldn’t have executed such an emergency procedure. In the several years I was an Army pilot there was absolutely no training in such procedures.

      • In Army UH1’s from 1980 to 1990 every unit I was in had VHIRP, and we did train for it. Sorry you did not have that experience. in 30 + years now as EMS it is a monthly training requirement. Yes helicopter fly low and slow and it’s great, sometimes but I now look back and ask why did we do that? Fly safe and thanks for sharing.

    • The PIC can deviate from the FARs as necessary in an emergency. Filing a prompt NTSB incident report will give you a get out of jail free pass.

      Finding yourself in reported IMC is bad enough and might get you a bust from the FEDs but better that then becoming known as the guy who killed Kote Bryant.

      I flew for years in Northern Alaska before GPS and ice fog and special departure and arrival clearances were the norm. White ground white sky and white terrain were the norm most of the year. Sometimes I had to think hard to remember a flight where an FAR was not broken in one way or another. However I never had an accident due to my extreme wariness of the conditions and the consequences. I lost half my friends over 25 years all for the same reason: CFIT.

  • Great article. Many lessons to be learned/reinforced. I’m also a former Army helicopter pilot, air assault company. It was a few years after your experience but we always briefed an inadvertent IMC procedure prior to multi ship formations. Accomplished them very similar to what you described. Saved our bacon more than once!

  • Interesting analysis of the Kobe Bryant crash in this months Flying mag. Supposedly he was I a climb at 4000 feet, only 100 feet from breaking out on top, when they apparently rolled left and went into a vertical dive. The investigator thinks they lost control, this final fatal maneuver was unintentional. Looking for instrument charts in the cockpit? Can any of you experienced helicopter pilots shed any light on what may have happened?

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